The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, today calls for greater attention to be paid to the sexual and reproductive rights of disabled women. The charity is concerned that the current focus on abortion in cases of fetal anomaly as the single issue engaging both people with disabilities and reproductive rights means some of the challenges faced by disabled women themselves in exercising reproductive choice – both in avoiding pregnancy and making the decision to become pregnant – can be neglected.
Disabled women face significant obstacles in accessing the full range of sexual and reproductive healthcare services. Individuals with disabilities are often denied crucial sex education by omission, as erroneous and offensive assumptions may be made about their sex lives. Moreover, disabled women frequently face limitations on reproductive choices by failures to make necessary services accessible.
Disability has recently re-entered parliamentary debates relating to reproductive choice – but only in relation to restricting women’s ability to end a pregnancy in cases of fetal anomaly. Lord Shinkwin’s Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill, which was debated in February 2017, would prevent women from ending a pregnancy after 24 weeks when faced with a serious antenatal diagnosis. Lord Shinkwin has re-tabled the bill for this next parliamentary session. If successful, this bill would force some women to continue to continue to carry a nonviable fetus to term.
The difficulties experienced by women with disability are highlighted in a report published today which brings together concerns raised by advocates and healthcare professionals at an event on disability and reproductive rights convened by bpas and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on 27 June.
Dr Jane Dickson, Dr Frances Ryan, Professor Claire de Than, Alison Lapper, and others emphasised the barriers to care faced by disabled women due to misconceptions about their lives and also inaccessible medical facilities. Issues raised in the report include:
- Doctors’ failure to always take into consideration disabled women’s individuating circumstances, such as mobility, when prescribing contraception
- Scrutiny of the decision to become pregnant, and questions over a woman’s capacity to bear and raise a child
- Inappropriate limiting of disabled women’s sexuality by carers and government agencies, impinging on their human rights
- Being physically unable to get on a standard examination table creating restrictions on access to reproductive healthcare—limiting contraceptive choices and access to smear tests
The full report from the event is available here.
Professor Claire de Than said: “Everyone has the right to sexual expression, to establish and develop relationships of their choosing, and to make their own decisions whenever possible about their private lives and healthcare, including how intimate their relationships are and whether they are linked to reproduction. But people with disabilities are often denied these rights because widespread assumptions are made about their needs, desires and sexual lives. Such assumptions deny evidence and violate fundamental human rights. Attitudes, education and behaviour are at least as important as laws, since many such rights violations are caused by well-meaning but misguided policies, or by ignorance. The sexual expression and reproductive health needs and choices of people with disabilities are as diverse as those of everybody else, and policymakers, legislators and healthcare workers need to consider the rights and listen to the lived experiences of people with disabilities before making decisions which could infringe those rights.”
Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs at bpas, said: “Discussions around disability and reproductive choice often concentrate exclusively on abortion for foetal anomaly and the decisions women make. We feel strongly that that this focus can detract from some of the issues disabled women face when it comes to reproductive decision-making, both in terms of avoiding pregnancy and making the decision to start a family. It’s really important that those of us working in the fields of both reproductive healthcare and disability rights understand the obstacles disabled women confront on a daily basis and campaign to ensure their needs are heard and properly addressed.”